The first time Za’Ria Thomas took Kahlua paddle boarding, Kahlua was petrified.
The Miniature American Shepherd has a thin undercoat, so the chilly California water quickly makes her cold.
Unlike her 15-month-old brother, Whiskey, a true water dog who loves jumping off paddleboards and swimming, 20-month-old Kahlua likes to stay on the board and out of the water.
Except for one day, when she fell in. She immediately retreated to Za’Ria’s board and refused to leave her side for 45 minutes.
It was the first time Za’Ria felt the anxious dog truly trusted her.
Bringing Home the Perfect Pups
Florida native Za’Ria grew up with Bulldogs. It wasn’t until a visit to her uncle’s ranch that she fell in love with Australian Shepherds. She saw Aussies for the first time when her uncle let them out with his cattle, terrifying 10-year-old Za’Ria. Australian Shepherds, after all, aren’t that big: they weigh an average of 50 pounds and stand about 20 inches tall.
I really don’t want to see the dog get hurt, she thought. Oh my God, I don’t know what to do.
She watched from the sidelines as Aussies Buck and Robbie herded cattle, instantly impressing young Za’Ria.
This is a cool dog! I have to have one, she thought. A few years later, Za’Ria knew it was time for a dog of her own.
When Za’Ria and her husband, DJ, went to pick their first Minature American Shepherd from a reputable breeder, the pup actually picked them.
Each time they visited the breeder, a small reddish-brown puppy walked over to them, curled up in DJ’s lap, and fell asleep.
“I don’t think we had any other choice but to take her,” Za’Ria recalls, laughing.
Kahlua and DJ are a good match: both are introverts at heart; both deal with anxiety. Kahlua has what Za’Ria calls “little panic attacks in public” and hated having a different dog sitter every day when her humans were at work.
The happiest Za’Ria ever saw Kahlua was when she was circling or chasing other four-legged friends at the beach or dog parks. She could even train better amid the chaos: Kahlua paid better attention and had perfect recall.
It felt like Kahlua was trying to tell them something. Za’Ria listened.
That’s how Whiskey became a part of the family. The Australian Shepherd is one-part rambunctious, one-part independent, and 100 percent charm.
Kahlua and Whiskey are complete opposites that balance each other. Where Whiskey is independent, Kahlua is responsible.
“He will walk off from us in a heartbeat. If a stranger wanted to take him, he’d go,” said Za’Ria. But Whiskey doesn’t stray off anymore — Kahlua won’t let him.
“It’s the funniest thing. She will go after him,” Za’Ria said. “If he’s taking too long to come up the steps, she’ll bite on the back of his neck.”
It’s like she’s saying, Come on! Come here.
When Whiskey tries to chase or herd another dog, Kahlua will distract him with a play fight.
Just as Kahlua has helped with Whiskey’s obedience, Whiskey has helped Kahlua with her anxiety and built her confidence.
He’s also helped her become more interested in pursuing dog sports.
Beginning the Dog Sport Journey
Za’Ria noticed that Whiskey was picking up skills quickly for a puppy. She applied the research skills she uses as an active duty Navy engineer and started looking into ways Whiskey could apply his intelligence and energy.
Since Za’Ria had no previous experience with dog sports, she reached out to an expert she discovered through the AKC mentor program directory. That AKC mentor recommended that she attend an agility trial since she was interested in the sport.
Za’Ria immediately booked a hotel for an upcoming competition happening the next weekend and made the five-hour drive with her husband. Aside from Za’Ria and DJ, there were approximately two other people of color at the competition.
They received side-eyes, shock, and surprise. Some attendees didn’t take Za’Ria seriously, questioning what she knew about Aussies and pedigrees.
“I didn’t understand what was so shocking,” Za’Ria said. But Za’Ria says that the only thing she can do is give people the same respect she’d like to receive. “I try not to think the worst of anything: a situation, a person, or my dog.”
It was at that competition that Za’Ria met an agility instructor who has mentored her through her dog sport journey. That instructor noticed that Whiskey had great concentration as a puppy and recommended that Za’Ria get Whiskey started with trick training by using the Trick Dog Title checklist.
Whiskey learned his tricks for his Novice Trick Dog Title in a week. He mastered the intermediate level in a few weeks. At just 8 months old, Whiskey earned his Advanced Trick Dog title in a month.
Dog Sports Are for Everyone
After Za’Ria leaves her Navy ship, she has just enough time to go home and grab a bit to eat before hitting the road to meet up with her trainer. Whiskey is currently working through Agility training and plans to get his Trick Dog Performer title.
Kahlua watches Whiskey as he works through his Agility training. Before Whiskey got involved in dog sports, Kahlua wasn’t interested in treats or training. Now, she’s willing to try tricks and wants treats of her own after watching Whiskey be rewarded during training.
Watching the two canines collaborate is rewarding for Za’Ria. Seeing both pooches encourage each other to succeed shows her how worthwhile the work has been.
“Everything you learned, everything you studied, everything you picked up, it’s true, it’s valid and it works,” she said. “It’s worth it. It’s tiring, but it’s worth it.”
Though DJ is nervous that things may not be fair for Za’Ria and Whiskey as they compete, she’s not worried.
“It’s not about the title. It’s the photos. It’s those moments for me,” said Za’Ria. “When Whiskey learned how to sit on a barrel and stay, that was monumental. I was so happy when he learned how to go over a frame. It’s those moments that make it worth it.”
“I don’t think there’s enough of us, of African Americans, in dog sports. Even when you go on the AKC website, for example, you don’t see us a lot,” said Za’Ria.
“I was okay with being the only black couple at the competition. I was perfectly fine with that. I want to change that though,” said Za’Ria. “I want to be that doorway. If there isn’t a lot of us, then I’m opening that door. If I can, I’m going to.”
Za’Ria has already begun opening those doors. She recently taught her friend, who was terrified to paddleboard with his huge Rottweiler, how to confidently handle the water sport.
And after several years, Za’Ria talked her mother-in-law into adding a dog to the family. Her mother-in-law has even asked Za’Ria to teach her how to train her dog.
What better way to inspire others than by sharing their adventures in dog sports on Instagram? Since Za’Ria started Kahlua and Whiskey’s Instagram account in 2019, more than 2,600 people have followed these two adorable pups. As Za’Ria chronicles their daily adventures, training, titles, and holistic tips, they continue their mission to inspire others to pursue a healthy lifestyle and athletic adventures.
Get Started in Dog Sports
Za’Ria’s advice for others looking to get involved in dog sports is to find a mentor and to just go for it. Whatever goals you have, whatever sport you’re interested in, go to an event and watch.
“I watched, I found a mentor, I found a club, and it just started working,” said Za’Ria.
Anyone can get started in dog sports. Finding a mentor was a crucial first step for Za’Ria. Find a local trainer, club, or mentor to help introduce your dog to these activities.
Join Kahlua and Whiskey
Follow Kahlua and Whiskey’s adventures in dog sports on Instagram.
Think your dog has what it takes to be Dog Athlete of the Month? Use the hashtag #ThisIsAKC on Instagram.